Australian YA: Soon by Morris Gleitzman

SoonOn my recent bookshop tour of London there were more books by Morris Gleitzman on the shelves than copies of The Book Thief. This is not to detract from Marcus Zusak’s famous and well-stocked literary export but means that there were many, many Gleitzmans on display, a fantastic achievement for our popular Australian children’s and YA writer.

I moderated a session with Morris and the beautiful Gabrielle Wang  several years ago at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival. The children in the audience were spellbound by the words of both authors and Gabrielle didn’t have enough hands for all the little girls who wanted to hold hers. Fortunately Morris gave me some warning about how the session would end. He jumped up and sprinted for the door to beat the kids to the signing table. I had to try to stop them running out after him. Luckily I had spent a number of years as a teacher so was able to summon my latent teacher authority. His queue then and now rivals that of Andy Griffiths‘.

Gleitzman prefers to describe his books about the holocaust, which begin with Once (Viking, Penguin), as a ‘family’ rather than ‘series’ of books. When Once was published in 2005 I wrote teacher notes about it here. http://www1.curriculum.edu.au/rel/history/book.php?catrelid=1877 Once

Each book is characterised by an inimitable structure where every chapter begins with the book’s title, such as ‘Once’, ‘Then’, ‘After’, ‘Now’ and ‘Soon’ and each book also begins and ends with this word. Now breaks the chronological pattern by being set in present-day Australia with Felix as an old man.

I reviewed After for the Weekend Australian in 2012 and said: ‘After takes the reader back to Felix’s trials during the war, at first to the underground hole which was his home for the past two years. When Felix leaves it to rescue his benefactor, Gabriek, what dangers will threaten him? … The effect of war and trauma on children and young people can be horrific and should not be underestimated. Stories about these issues can provide opportunities for characters such as Felix … to play out their roles and show readers how goodness can be kept alive to help mend broken places and people. Damaged young figures move forward with hope in books of this calibre and, ideally, will not remain broken.’After

Most of the books show Felix as a boy evading the Nazis. In the latest title, Soonhe is 13-years-old and the war is over. But it’s not. Many people are still treating others without compassion; injuring and killing them in ways they wouldn’t treat animals.

Felix is surviving in a hideout with his former rescuer Gabriek. He is forced to confront more atrocities of war and its after-effects despite his work as a child doctor, innate goodness and belief in humanity. Soon is a strong anti-war cry. It is so harrowing that I would recommend it for young adults rather than primary school children. It is dedicated to ‘the children who had no hope’. Gleitzman alerts us to evil but ultimately does give us hope in these important books.

Meet Suzy Zail, author of Alexander Altmann A10567

Thanks for speaking to Boomerang Books, Suzy.

Alexander Altmann

Your second novel for young adults, Alexander Altmann A10567 Black Dog Books (Walker Books)  is a candid account of a Hungarian boy’s experience in the concentration camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau. In spite of the horrific events, you have crafted a story of human indomitability and hope. Was this a deliberate strategy?

Yes.   There’s no episode more grim than the Holocaust. Alexander Altmann A10567 doesn’t shy away from the fact that the world can be a bleak and crushing place, but I also wanted to remind readers that we’re capable of great things, that we can help – in big and small ways – and that our capacity for friendship can powerful.

 Why are you interested in the holocaust?

My father inspired me to write the book. I was a litigation lawyer when he was diagnosed with a terminal illness in 1998. My father had survived Auschwitz as a thirteen-year-old, but had never talked about his experiences. Once he was diagnosed he wanted to tell us everything. He didn’t want us to be victims or victimise others.

I left the law and spent the next 5 years writing his story, promising him, on the day he died, that I’d get it published. Writing The Wrong Boy and Alexander Altmann allowed me to remember him and pass on his warning never to forget.

Alexander Altmann was inspired by the true experiences of Fred Steiner, who worked in the elite horse commando at Auschwitz. What was the most disturbing thing he told you? The most hopeful?

The most disturbing episode was when he was forced to throw his baby cousin over a barbed wire fence hoping his aunt would catch him. (She did and that cousin is now living in San Francisco in her 60s.) The most hopeful was when Fred was severely whipped by the Commander but his wife called him by name and fed him cake.

How has the 2013 CBCA short-listing of The Wrong Boy changed your writing life?

wrong boy

 I came to writing fiction through non-fiction. It was a steep learning curve: from interviewing people to imagining them into existence. The short-listing allowed me to believe that my writing could touch people and I could master the craft of storytelling.

Why are you writing YA?

I didn’t pick YA. My stories did. Young adults are the next generation of leaders. They’re our future and the perfect audience for a story set in Auschwitz. The only way to prevent something like the Holocaust recurring is by trying to understand it and the best way to help kids do that is giving them a character to care about. Not millions of Jews – just one – a girl or boy their age with the same fears, dreams and insecurities.

I knew teenagers would relate to the stories because their lives, like Hanna and Alexander’s, can also involve betrayal, abandonment, loneliness and shame. They’re also discovering their identity, so a book that encourages them to examine intolerance and question how they want to live is powerful.

 

 

Review – The Treasure Box

Many of my generation (sadly not all) and those of the next, fortunately have not endured the atrocities of war like those seen during the Holocaust. That we are able to feel its impact, appreciate the drama and acknowledge its implications is the unique potency of a picture book. Margret Wild and Freya Blackwood exploit this power wondrously well.The Treasure Box

The quiet unassuming cover of the Treasure Box magnetised me from the moment I was handed the book. The subdued colours, lone tree bereft of leaf and life, fragments of words adrift; all at conflict with the title, which promises something far brighter and more uplifting. I was a little unprepared for the subtle magnitude of the tale, again preoccupied by the end papers, comprising scraps of text which interestingly are taken from Sonya Hartnett’s and Morris Gleitzmann’s foreign editions of their own wartime tales of displacement and loss.

We join young Peter’s story after his home town is destroyed leaving the library in ruin. Books once housed there are transformed to nothing more substantial than bits of ash as ‘frail as butterflies.’ That is all but one; a book that by fortuitous happenstance had been taken home by Peter’s father before the bombing.

Treasure box illoPeter’s father is intent on safe-guarding the book for the stories it contains; stories that tell the history of Peter’s people, of a past ‘rarer than rubies, more splendid than silver, greater than gold.’ The book is secured in an old iron box which forms part of the meagre possessions they flee with from their homeland.

Peter’s father does not survive the soul crushing exodus but instills in Peter tremendous tenacity and a promise to keep their ‘treasure safe’. Unable to continue with such a load but true to his word Peter buries the box under an ancient linden tree, to which he returns many years later. His single-handed courage and loyalty perpetuates the most valuable treasure of all – the gift of hope and love.

Margaret WildMargaret Wild’s eloquent sense of story and place transports the reader into the very heart and soul of Peter and his father. Her thoughtfully sparse narrative paradoxically permeates every inch of the page and ounce of our attention. Neither her words nor the illustrations compete for space in this book. They work in convincing unison, caressing the story along and guiding us skilfully through horrific, almost unimaginable situations like sleeping in ditches, and holding the hand of a dying father.Freya Blackwood

Freya Blackwood’s artwork is instantly recognisable, however is taken one step higher using collage and multi-layering to create a stunning subtle 3D effect. Characters literally appear to be trudging across the page, accompanied by the metaphoric charred fragments of the leaves of a million books. The story is further enriched with delicate contrasts and symbolism on each page, all in the haunting sepia coloured tones of despair and misery.

Only the intensity of the treasure box itself, shown in vibrant red throughout, never fades. By Peter’s maturity, colour and prosperity have returned to his hometown. Even the library radiates with a glorious, golden yellow – hope restored.

I happened upon this picture book late last year, in spite of its 2013 publication date. I thought it was a most serendipitous discovery, but did not fully appreciate its immense value until I uncovered its contents. Truly one to treasure.

Penguin / Viking January 2013